In her new Passover Haggadah — a written guide to the Passover seder — writer, rabbi, and pioneer of the Jewish environmental movement Ellen Bernstein posits that narratives of land have been ignored by previous editions of the book, of which there are many. But no longer. The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah provides a critical intervention in this regard through sensuous artwork, provocative quotes, and novel commentary, inviting Passover seder participants to question their relationship with land. The book, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April, could not be more timely, especially for those of us who live and work in cities, enveloped in concrete office buildings and disconnected from the soil that nurtures us.
The Passover seder is a meal marking the leaving of Egypt and the start of the annual Jewish Passover festival. It involves eating symbolic foods, doing special customs, sharing a communal meal, and the telling of the Jewish origin story — the account of the migration to Egypt, where the Jews became numerous but were turned into slaves until we were eventually freed by God — all guided by the Haggadah. There are virtually limitless editions of the Haggadah, which can include reflection and commentary on any number of themes, including social justice, feminism, and environmentalism.
What all Haggadot have in common is this Jewish origin story, adapted from a passage near the end of the Five Books of Moses. In the telling of the story over several verses, Rabbi Bernstein offers thoughtful commentary on human-land connections. In the first verse, she explains how Yosef, in order to get out of jail, assists Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, with his command-and-control agricultural system in which “land had no inherent value” but was rather a commodity. In her interpretation of the next verse, she suggests that without representation in Pharaoh’s court, the Jewish people became “displaced and landless.” Limited by access to land, the people themselves also became commodified and entered into slavery. Upon remembering the prophecy of possessing their own land in the third and fourth verses, the slaves then cried out and witnessed the miracles that made freedom possible.
What is unique about this edition is that Rabbi Bernstein includes two additional verses of this passage that are not used in haggadot of memory. These verses mention the life giving properties of the land of Israel and associated land-based responsibilities , such as offering the first fruits of the annual harvest to the priests in the temple. Here, Bernstein further elaborates on the significance of land. Rather than the land and people being commodities, Bernstein writes that: “We could not own land, because the land has a life of its own ... We were to see ourselves as God’s tenants — guests on the land.” With these lines, she signals that the story is not just about freedom writ large, as it is often interpreted, but rather a freedom to be in relationship with the land. This relationship should not be exploitive, as it was in Egypt, but rather a reciprocal relationship in which humans receive nourishment and bounty from the land while upholding the responsibility to share and care for the soil. During the times of temple service, this six verse passage was even to be read in full during the ritual when priests placed the first fruits on the alter, signifying the reciprocal human-land relationship.
The inclusion of these last two verses implore us to reflect upon and deepen our relationship with land through contemporary Jewish ritual. Our society looks very much like Egypt during the time of Jewish slavery, where land, labor, and food are highly commodified. However, recognizing our role as co-inhabitants of the Earth along with many other peoples and species, rituals can be important points of intervention that allow us to reorient our relationship with land. As Rabbi Bernstein highlights throughout the book, perhaps the easiest way to further this connection with land is through food traditions. Foods that are eaten at the seder meal often have symbolic as well as material meaning. But what if you grew the food yourself, knew the farmer who produced the food, or even the person who cared for the seeds of the plants?
Upon reading this text, another possible mode of intervention that comes to mind is through land sovereignty movements that seek to restore land management to people who have deeper and more varied connections to land than do commercial agricultural interests. Indigenous peoples and other people of color have formed organizations such as Soul Fire Farm, Sierra Seeds, and the Sogorea Te Land Trust that are fighting for land sovereignty and food security through alternative strategies like seed exchanges and subsidized produce for low-income families.
Bernstein’s Haggadah is an invitation to build more profound connections with land through ritual, whether through the retelling of the exodus story, reflection on food practices, or solidarity with other peoples who have struggled in tortuous conditions in recent times who deserve land access today. These are pathways to freedom not just for its own sake but to form interdependencies with the Earth and each other.